Ancient History & Civilisation

The Priapeia:
Before e-books there were tree-books

One of the ripest, raunchiest collections of printed matter ever made in ancient times was the Priapeia, a garland or collection of short Latin poems or epigrams. “Printed” isn’t the adequate word to describe the Priapeia, which had a very unusual genesis.

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A Roman garden wasnt complete unless it boasted a statue of the god Priapus, whose fierce supersized member would guard the premises.

Initially written on leather, papyrus, parchment, and possibly tree bark, these poems ran from two lines long to twenty or more. They were nailed or fastened onto the carved wooden figure of the god Priapus—and not just one Priapus, either. Most of the statues of this god adorned the lush walled gardens of the well-to-do, or sat inside temples throughout Rome. (Others appeared on board merchant ships, since Priapus was also the protector of sailors and patron god of navigation.)

Some statues were sophisticated images, beautifully carved and painted bright red. But many were deliberately crude, simply a tree trunk roughly shaped into human form. In both instances, the attention-getting body part of the Priapus god was his massive, at-attention virile member. In everyday language it was called a mentula, the street slang for phallus.

Priapus worship was said to have come from Greece, the cult later spreading to Italy. Other accounts insisted it was derived from the Egyptians and their adoration of Apis, the sacred bull. Like the older god Pan, Priapus’s backstory included being raised by shepherds and being a minor deity of wilderness and woodlands.

In any event, these fierce scarlet images were very ancient fertility symbols, apropos for gardens filled with fruit trees, herbs, and edible plants. Priapus also protected livestock as well as wild animals. For property owners, the Priapus figure acted as a garden vigilante and an evil-eye deterrent. His oversize phallic aggression visually threatened fruit robbers, cattle rustlers, vegetable thieves, and any other no-good varmints with a terrible punishment: rape.

Thus the Priapeia poems attached to the Priapus figure—which poetically threatened the reader—added more emphasis.

How did the Priapus poetry come into being, anyway? It seems to have developed at a reunion of Roman literati, who were spending a relaxing day in the ultra-fancy gardens of Maecenas, swimming in Rome’s first warm water pool and swilling good wine. Maecenas, a tight friend of Rome’s first emperor, was also the literary patron of Horace the poet and other wellknown writers. His gardens were the first ones in Italy to be lush, Persian-style walled paradises.

Over the course of that jovial, competitive afternoon (or perhaps a series of afternoons) the group wrote poems and epigrams, then affixed them to the massive Priapus that stood guard on the grounds of the temple in the Maecenas gardens. Later, some ninety-five of these poems to Priapus were collected into a printed volume that saw publication in Rome. The “hard copies,” as we’ll call the ones not attached to the statues, became so popular with a wider audience that well-known writers of erotic or scatological themes, from Catullus and Petronius to Tibullus, were eager to add to the collection. And did so, with brio. Because of its ripely obscene content and often disturbing rape imagery, the Priapeia was for many centuries not translated into English.

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